We’re Reliving a Yellow Submarine
After 56 years, a fresh listen to the Beatles’ subsea echo chamber
When the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” shot to the top of the charts in 1966, I was smack dab in its target audience: a 5-year-old with a tractor-tire sandbox out back. I was past infancy and, of course, aware of the Beatles, but this was their first song I could really sing.
In my little book, the fact that the Beatles had a TV cartoon put them on a level with the Archies and the Banana Splits. It would be years before I saw the Yellow Submarine animated film, but I could tell the Fabs were cool.
For the rest of the world, the Beatles’ first kiddie singalong appeared as a double-A-sided single with “Eleanor Rigby,” their chamber-octet masterpiece of loneliness. That chart-topping disc was one of the few times the Beatles released a double-A-side from an album they released on the same day (August 8, 1966).
That album was Revolver — which on October 28 will be rolled out again with the deluxe reissue box set treatment we’ve seen for every Beatles album from its successor Sgt. Pepper forward. The 2021 reissue of Let It Be and the phenomenal Get Back film series by Peter Jackson begged the question of whether it was the end of the line for Fab reissues.
No way! Thanks to sound-separation technology developed by Jackson’s WingNuts Films Productions Ltd., producer Giles Martin and engineer Sam Okell have worked remix magic on the entire Revolver album, including its kiddie novelty number. Once again, outtakes speak volumes: John Lennon’s first working tape of “Yellow Submarine” is an outright revelation.
In the Thick of It
At the time of recording “Yellow Submarine” on May 26, 1966, the Beatles were on a creative roll, having cranked out the “Paperback Writer/Rain” single and three-quarters of Revolver. It had been just eight weeks since they taped the trippy sound collage “Tomorrow Never Knows.” There was a surreal mood all around.
In this milieu, “Yellow Submarine” took on a life of its own. Sung by Ringo and long regarded as a Paul song by both Lennon & McCartney, it emerged from Macca’s imagination as he nodded off one night. “There’s a nice twilight zone just as you’re drifting into sleep,” Paul tells Barry Miles in the 1997 bio Many Years From Now. “I remember thinking that a children’s song would be quite a good idea, and I thought of images, and the color yellow came to me, and a submarine came to me.”
From there, he shifted to sea tales such as Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In his 2021 book The Lyrics, McCartney adds: “A large part of the subtext of ‘Yellow Submarine’ was that…the Beatles were living in our own capsule. Our own microclimate. Our own controlled environment.”
But what the Revolver reissue reveals is Lennon’s contribution — the musical construct of the verses — by way of a recently unearthed demo of John singing and picking the skeletal tune. “I had no idea until I started going through the outtakes,” recalls Giles Martin (George Martin’s son and producer of the reissue). “This was a Lennon-McCartney thing.”
In waltz time, John plays the Lennon-esque major-minor pentatonic chord pattern that distinguishes the verses from Paul’s singsong refrain. The Woody Guthrie cadence of John’s guitar echoes early Dylan. The voice is woeful, and the lines bleak — “In the place where I was born / no one cared / no one cared” — as they show Lennon messing around with the tune well before Paul’s chorus section showed up.
In fact, Lennon and McCartney acknowledged the co-authorship of “Yellow Submarine’’ in 1967, in an interview for the Ivor Novella Awards in honor of the single. “I seem to remember, like, the submarine…the chorus bit, you coming in with it,” John says to Paul. “And wasn’t the other bit something that I had already going, and we put them together?” Paul concurs.
Thus the song was another fortuitous paste-job between the partners — like “We Can Work it Out,” “Michelle,” “The Word,” and other Fab tunes of the era (not to mention later ones such as “A Day in the Life”).
After Paul’s somnolent vision of the storyline, he took over the words — with help from John and songwriting pal Donovan (who offered “sky of blue, sea of green”). In Hunter Davies’ 2015 book The Beatles’ Lyrics, Paul’s lyrical notes have a mysterious “Disgusting!! See me” note at the side of a verse. Davies opines that this schoolmarm remark is in Paul’s hand; others argue it came from John. (Their handwriting often did look similar.)
Regardless, the scribbled lyrics remained, and the real magic happened when the boys started recording. Here they were aided by George Martin’s food poisoning. The producer was out sick when sessions began on May 26, making for an extra-loose vibe while they laid down the rhythm tracks and vocals by Ringo and Paul, with loony asides sung by John.
A week later, they added more layers, now with input from Martin — who had mastered comedy pastiche with Peter Sellers and The Goon Show in the early ’60s. The singalong party session on June 1 included friends and family: Marianne Faithful (possibly with Mick Jagger), Brian Jones, Pattie Harrison, and Beatles staffers such as roadie Mal Evans, who led a conga line around the studio with a marching bass drum. John and Ringo shouted out more vocal shenanigans. Sound effects included bubbles blown through straws, chains dragged in water buckets, and shuffled sand. The brass-band interlude was made from cut-up archival tapes of a band playing a Sousa-like march. While such wacky studio experimentation would resurface on Sgt. Pepper and beyond, it fully bloomed on Revolver.
Over and Out
Some two weeks later, the album sessions wrapped up, and the lads took off for their last global tour — and straight into headwinds: John’s remarks about being “more popular than Jesus” erupted in a US teen mag and set off riots while they toured; their “butcher cover” for the US-only album Yesterday and Today was recalled to great expense; and Imelda Marcos had the group and entourage briskly deported from the Philippines after a perceived snub. They played their last official gig at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29.
In the midst of it all, on August 8, they released their seminal album Revolver and its double-A-side to relatively little fanfare — but hot sales nonetheless. In the US, Revolver held the #1 spot for six weeks. “Yellow Submarine” made Billboard’s #2 (behind the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love”) while “Eleanor Rigby” hit #11. (Neither side made #1. Go figure.)
And We Live a Life of Ease
Two years after its release, “Yellow Submarine” spawned the animated film of the same name…whose soundtrack is widely regarded as the Beatles’ absolute lousiest album in terms of bang for the buck. (In their defense, the band—then in the throes of creating their White Album—had little to do with either the movie or the LP. And the George Dunning film turned out to be an animated masterpiece.)
Since then, the sea chantey has become one of the Fabs’ more divisive songs. If you’re burned out on the group, “Yellow Submarine” could be a big part of why. It’s an unrelenting earworm, and like later Beatles anthems (“All You Need is Love,” “Hey Jude”), it’s just too damn ubiquitous.
Yet if you’re still reading, you too probably have a lingering fondness for the Beatles’ first kiddie tune and biggest novelty record. Not to mention open ears for the remastered Revolver. It was an era when the lads retreated into, as Paul called it, “Our own capsule. Our own microclimate. Our own controlled environment.” It’s a place that never seems to stop giving.